The uproar continues over the proposed critical habitat designation for woodland caribou in the Selkirk Mountains. Recently, more than 200 people turned out at an event orchestrated by the Bonner County Commissioners purporting to “coordinate” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) over the proposal. In an irony lost on the angry crowd, much of the heated argument against the proposal establishing critical habitat for the endangered species centered on how few caribou still exist.
Woodland caribou once occupied a vast area of North America stretching from southeastern Alaska and British Columbia to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and extending south into large areas of the northern tier of the United States, from Washington and Idaho, across the upper midwest, to Vermont, and Maine. Through the 20th century, habitat alteration, hunting, and poaching of woodland caribou caused its population and range to dramatically shrink. By the 1980’s, the only caribou population remaining in the U.S. was an isolated herd found in our Selkirk region, extending across the border into southern British Columbia.
The administrative battle to protect Caribou habitat has been ongoing for nearly 30 years. In 1984, the USFWS declared the southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, characterizing it as “one of the most critically endangered mammals in the United States.” However, USFWS did not designate critical habitat for the species, finding that it was “not prudent” due to the alleged “serious risk of facilitating poaching.” Back then, it was believed that only approximately thirty individual woodland caribou remained in the U.S. portion of the Southern Selkirk Mountains herd. In the subsequent twenty-eight years of not doing very much, the number is down to maybe two or three. A lawsuit brought by conservation organizations finally forced this habitat designation.
Some 80% of the caribou’s remaining range in the U.S. is in the Idaho Panhandle and Colville National Forests. For this reason, the primary legal effect will be that federal agencies will be required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on federal actions that may affect the critical habitat. Federal agencies are prohibited from funding or authorizing actions that would adversely affect critical habitat. However, as the USFWS points out: the designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership; critical habitat is not the same as a refuge, a wilderness area or any other conservation area; it does not allow government or public access to non-federal lands; and a critical habitat designation does not impose restrictions on non-federal lands unless federal funds, permits or activities are involved. With only higher-altitude, non-developed lands included in the habitat proposal, there will be very little impact on private citizens in Idaho.
Woodland caribou consist of two “ecotypes”: the northern ecotype (associated with flat tundra habitat) and the mountain ecotype like those found in the Selkirk Mountains. Mountain-type woodland caribou spend most of their time at higher elevation and depend heavily on lichens associated with old growth forests as a primary food source. In the warmer months, caribou are able to eat a wider diversity of foods, but in snowier months, they rely much more heavily (and sometimes solely) on the lichen, which they access by standing on top of compacted snow with their large snowshoe-like hooves.
Caribou, of course, have natural predators like mountain lions and even wolves. But they are also seriously threatened by human-related habitat alterations, particularly snowmobile intrusions into their high-altitude backcountry habitat during the tough winter months. Scientific research shows that caribou simply will not use highly suitable habitat when intensive snowmobiling activity occurs in high elevation areas. In fact, snowmobiles displace caribou in essentially the same manner as predators, defeating the purpose of the caribou’s biological choice of high elevations to survive.
The lawsuit brought to require the critical habitat designation was successful because the law recognizes that the woodland caribou is a critically endangered species and habitat protection is absolutely necessary to its survival. It would be a cruel irony indeed to allow the caribou’s extinction in the U.S. simply because we allowed it to become too endangered before taking action.
What you can do:
2. Provide comments to USFWS here. (Although the comment period is officially closing in the next several days, the USFWS is providing for an additional 60-day comment period at the request of County Commissioners and the State of Idaho.)